Flying Sikh together with his sweetheart again
“Meet my sweetheart wife, who is my heartbeat,” India’s legendary sprinter Milkha Singh had said while introducing Nirmal Kaur to his mentor Dr Arthur W Howard, former coach of the Indian athletics team, at the Chandigarh Golf Club in 2007.
Such was Milkha’s admiration and love for Nirmal. Chandigarh will miss the evergreen couple that lost the battle to Covid-19 in a span of a week.
Being the only athlete to win gold in the 400m race in the Asian as well the Commonwealth Games in 1958, Milkha had been part of Chandigarh’s folklore since he settled in the City Beautiful in the early 1960s.
The Indian track-and-field athlete, who became the first Indian man to reach the final of an Olympic athletics event when he was placed fourth in the 400m race at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, has inspired a whole generation of sportspersons with his stories of success, gumption, glory, dedication and discipline.
His dedication towards a fit and healthy lifestyle post his retirement was phenomenal. In many ways, his death is the end of an era.
Recalling the days when they started playing golf together at the Chandigarh Golf Club (CGC) greens in 1977, former CGC president and friend RS Mann, says, “I first met Milkha in 1973 and we bonded instantly. He was the director of sports in the Punjab ministry of education back then. A few years later, our interest in golf grew and we started playing together. He had so many stories to tell about the Partition, Rome Olympics and his stint in the army. Jeev grew in front of me and went on to become an international golf icon. Milkha and his wife always encouraged their son’s passion for golf and as a result Jeev turned out to be a star and has in turn inspired numerous children to take up golf.”
“Milkha was always very competitive, be it on the athletics field, golf greens or at the table playing cards. He frequently travelled to Jammu and Kashmir, and Delhi for golf tournaments and had even played against former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah!” says Mann.
“I would always be amazed to see Milkha’s charm and jovial attitude whenever he was playing golf with dignitaries, or senior politicians. His presence at the CGC, especially after the release of the movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, attracted many eyeballs. For 55 years, he always had one beer at lunch and two glasses of whiskey at night,” adds Mann.
A through-and-through philanthrope
Milkha was always also ready to extend a helping hand to the needy and set up the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust in 2003. In 1999, the Singh family adopted Manjit, the seven-year-old son of Havaldar Bikram Singh, who was killed in action during the Kargil war in the Battle of Tiger Hill.
Ravinder Chaudhary, general secretary of the Chandigarh-based Athletic Federation of India, said, “Milkha jeewas a real hero. We would often invite him over for local athletic championships and he would always oblige. He would always encourage young athletes and keep asking me about needy athletes, and later help them. A great soul, he will always be remembered for his magnanimous nature.”
A woman cricketer, Mamta Kothiyal, who lived near Milkha’s house in Sector 8 until a few years ago, recalls how the legendary athlete helped her with funds ahead of a tournament.
The local celebrity
“I reached out to Milkha sir and Nirmal ma’am when I needed funds. They were so kind and gave me their blessings too! When Bhaag Milkha Bhaag became a hit, fans would come to see his house and would wait around to catch a glimpse of him,” she said.
Former Indian test cricketer and actor Yograj Singh says he learnt a lot about Milkha’s life and achievements when he played the role of young Milkha’s coach Ranbir Singh in the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Yograj says he spoke to his coach Ranbir, who was based in Canada, several times over the phone during his research.